Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Niels Arden Oplev, 2009
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Lena Endre

Back in about 2007, I decided to read Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first release of what would become the very famous Millenium Trilogy. I'm a sucker for murder mysteries and cheapie noir novels, so it was really only a matter of time before I could no longer resist. I saw the Swedish film not long after it came out and was mindlessly entertained, but largely unimpressed, which was exactly my reaction to the novel. In the past week I decided to re-visit the Swedish film to decide whether or not I wanted to bother seeing the American remake. Generally I frown upon or outright blacklist American remakes of foreign language films for the reason that they are, by definition, completely idiotic and basically represent everything I hate about American pop culture. No one needs me to launch into that rant right now, though. After revisiting the original film I decided I had enough to say about it that I had to write a review.

The plot of the book is sprawling with enough subplots to make a film adaptation seem absurd, but screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg make a valid attempt. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is about to face a prison term for committing libel against a Swedish businessman, though he is certain there really is something rotten in the state of Sweden. Millenium, the leftwing magazine he started with co-owner and part-time lover Erika Berger, is suffering because of his trial, so he resigns and reluctantly takes on a new position. Henrik Vanger, ex-tycoon of another multi-million dollar family business has hired him to look into the 40-year old case of his missing niece, Harriet, whom Henrik believes was murdered. Henrik suspects many of his secretive family members, all of whom have suspicious past dealings including links to the Nazi party.

Mikael discovers some interesting new leads and receives some unexpected help. When Henrik decided to hire Mikael, he had him investigated by a surveillance firm and their best hacker, Lisbeth Salander. She's a skinny, tattooed, and pierced 24-year old goth chick with a bad family history and possible sociopathy, schizophrenia, or Asperger's. She also has a photographic memory, a genius-level IQ, and is a bisexual chain-smoker. Salander is a ward of the state, whose aged and ill, but kind former guardian is replaced by a vile, manipulative, and sexually predatory lawyer, Nils Bjurman. At first Bjurman asks Salander invasive questions about her personal life and sexual habits, then takes control of her finances. Soon he coerces her into oral sex in exchange for access to her own money, then later viciously rapes her. The ever-thoughtful Salander catches the rape on video and returns to get vengeance. She ties up and tortures Bjurman, anally rapes him with his own dildo, sloppily tattoos his crimes across his chest, and blackmails him.

She continues to investigate Mikael, who fascinates her for no apparent reason. She reluctantly shares information with him and he convinces her to help whim work on the case in the rural, frostbitten region of Hedestad. SPOILERS ABOUND. It turns out that Harriet's disappearance was not an isolated incident. Mikael and Salander discover that Harriet knew about a series of vicious serial murders that targeted young Jewish women throughout the '50s and '60s. The trail of clues leads them directly to Harriet's father, who died in a boating accident the year before Harriet disappeared. Meanwhile, Salander begins an inexplicable sexual relationship with the older, more passive Mikael, though she resents any emotional intimacy. They finally discover that Harriet's father and brother Martin were a team of serial killers and Martin was only too happy to carry on his father's work alone. Martin almost kills Mikael, but he is saved in the nick of time by Salander, who pursues Martin until he dies in a fiery car accident she could have prevented. The police uncover information about dozens of women Martin raped, tortured, and murdered over the years.

Salander finds Harriet living under an assumed name in Australia. It seems she fled the day of her disappearance, convinced that Martin was going to torture and kill her for knowing about the murders -- a reasonable though, as she was repeatedly tortured and raped by both her father and brother. Harriet is joyously reunited with Henrik and finally gets a chance to tell her story. There are two further conclusions. Mikael serves part of his jail time, but is released when Salander discovers solid evidence that Mikael's dirty businessman is far worse than he seemed. Mikael is able to resume his career at Millenium and is back in the public good graces.

A lot of critics seem to enjoy the book and film because of Lisbeth's character, claiming she is more fascinating than the actual plot of the novel and is the first original anti-hero to come along in the thriller/mystery genre in years. For anyone part of a goth/punk/metal subgenre, Salander is basically a culmination of stereotypes from fringe cultures. She has a few piercings, a few tattoos, and dresses all in black. She's fucked up, angry, very smart, and has a deeply troubled past. I think she probably could have been an interesting character, but comes across as a modern day, edgier Bond girl with her high-tech gadgets, seamless disguises, and sociopathic brilliance.

My main complaint about the film is that it is essentially an exploitation film masquerading as a high class thriller. When I watched it recently I thought about the film's potential message and its original title, Man som hatar kvinnor or Men Who Hate Women. I also thought about why this title wasn't good enough for an English-language audience, who needed the much catchier Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Almost every female character in the film is a victim of sexual violence or, at best, subjected to male indifference. Even the "normal" characters like Erika Berger have a laundry list of divorce, affairs, and disappointing relationships. Salander is allegedly an avenging angel, raping rapers and catching serial killers and dirty businessmen alike. Her actions, which are all essentially reactions, should have the same sort of cathartic fulfillment I feel from watching Coffy, Thriller: A Cruel Picture, or Lady Snowblood, but because the film pretends to have some sort of serious political subtext and message about sexual violence, this falls flat on its face. It tries to be sobering and thrilling at the same time, but mostly feels like a lengthy, formulaic exercise with two-dimensional characters who are not particularly likable.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will likely be entertaining for anyone who enjoys mindless thrillers, but I can't recommend it any further than that. There's a region 1 blu-ray from Music Box if you're so inclined. I'm not sure what Fincher, Mara or Craig will bring to the remake, but I'm guessing it's just a flashier, more visually appealing version of the original film with tighter editing and a Trent Reznor soundtrack.

1 comment:

  1. "For anyone part of a goth/punk/metal subgenre, Salander is basically a culmination of stereotypes from fringe cultures."

    !!!! Yes!

    This is an amazing read and really articulates my feelings on the film. I'd never given much thought as to why it failed to connect for me, and your breakdown nails it.

    I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the other parts of the trilogy.